The Story Behind “One Team”

By Kevin Klein, Chairman, National A&W Franchise Association (NAWFA) & Birch Run, Michigan Franchisee

Text reads "One Team" in orange with "Since 1919" in brown on bottom left and the A&W Restaurants logo on the bottom right.

In the best of times, franchisee-franchisor relations can be a challenge. In a crisis, they often collapse, threatening the system’s existence. Fortunately, A&W’s franchisees are, in effect, the franchisor, as they bought the company from YUM! Brands in 2011. It’s a unique structure, bringing together owners who range from multi-unit operators in major cities to individual owners with one hometown restaurant. All have a voice through the National A&W Franchise Association (NAWFA).

Back in 2012, NAWFA and our A&W Chairman Dale Mulder created the “One Team” concept. The team consists of NAWFA, Franchise Partners, the A&W Restaurant Support Center staff, along with our supply chain co-op, Restaurant Supply Chain Solutions (RSCS), and our other vendor partners.  Collectively, we work toward two goals: driving profitable same-store sales and opening profitable new restaurants

There is no doubt in my mind that we will successfully navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as future challenges, with the One Team approach. Between depression, recession, inflation, wars, and conflicts, A&W has survived adversity over the past 101 years. We’ve learned to be tenacious.

Going into COVID-19, A&W had a strong balance sheet, critical during times like these. When the crisis struck, NAWFA – which meets routinely with the Support Center staff – increased its involvement. Engagement with RSCS and our vendor partners also was elevated, as we worked as One Team to manage the emergency.

Photo of NAWFA Chairman and A&W franchisee Kevin Klein

Kevin Klein, NAWFA Chairman and Birch Run, MI Franchisee

Nothing about COVID-19 has been easy, but I cannot imagine where our franchisees would be today if not for this coordinated team effort. Critical communications and feedback between team members continue to take high priority. And I don’t know of any CEO who hosted national webinars three times a week with franchisees, as Kevin Bazner did.

Together, we addressed evolving issues, such as restaurant cash flow and royalties, new local store marketing family bundles, delivery options, and personal protection equipment acquisition. As a result, more than 90% of A&W restaurants operated through the crisis, and sales are returning to pre-virus levels.

The A&W family is a tight-knit group, with some restaurants run by second and third-generation family members who jokingly claim to have Root Beer flowing through their veins. I believe there will be lasting changes post-pandemic, but the core of the A&W brand and the A&W guest experience will live on. I also know that we will continue to rally as a family, as One Team.

My history with A&W goes back four decades, and I’ve been an owner for more than 20 years. There is still a lot of uncertainty ahead, and it’s hard to predict what is in store precisely, but if any restaurant franchise can endure – and prosper – beyond this crisis, it’s A&W.

The Importance of Supply Chain Partnerships

By Bill Fry, Sr. Vice President of Restaurant Support Services and Supply Chain Management

Hands of friends in medical gloves greeting each other with fist bump. Background is navy.

I’ve been with A&W for 26 years. If a franchisee ever asked me to source face masks, I would have said, “Sure. What kind of Halloween promotion are you planning?”  Today, I know better.

We’re talking about things now that we never before considered. Our team is sourcing not just face masks but also thermometers while showing operators how to build DIY face shields. It’s been a heck of a few weeks.

Photo of Bill Fry, Senior VP Restaurant Support Services

Bill Fry, Sr. VP of Restaurant Support Services and Supply Chain Management

Thank goodness for our long-time partner Restaurant Supply Chain Solutions (RSCS). During this pandemic, RSCS enabled our A&W franchise partners to stay open by helping them acquire the personal protection equipment needed to keep our team members and guests as safe as possible – even items in short supply, like hand sanitizer.

Working with RSCS allows A&W operators to purchase goods and services at lower costs than our competition because RSCS is the purchasing co-op for Yum! Brands. If we were trying to buy masks just for ourselves, that’s not a good position to be in. Instead, we are leveraging the buying power of brands many times our size.

RSCS comes through for A&W in countless other ways. They have reliably kept our franchisees’ kitchens stocked with food and other supplies, and they provide our operators with the same high level of service our franchisees provide their guests. And since RSCS works with many of the world’s largest food vendors, it’s a pipeline for new product development, which will continue long after the coronavirus crisis is over.

People sometimes ask, “Bill, what keeps you going?” I tell them it’s the franchisees. Without them, we’d be nowhere. Seeing them work their tails off and spill out their hearts in support of their community has been truly inspirational.

How Guiding Principles Are Steering A&W Through COVID-19

A message from Kevin Bazner, CEO:

Image of Rooty the Great Root Bear holding mug of A&W Root Beer. Text above Rooty reads "We're all in this together."

When A&W’s franchise partners bought the company from YUM! Brands and I returned as CEO, we created a few guiding principles. Building profitable, same-store sales and engaging our franchise leadership in every key decision topped the list.

Today our focus has shifted to protecting sales, while our franchise leaders are busy managing challenges never before experienced. Yet, we remain committed to our guiding principles, using them to steer us through this crisis. It’s paying off.

Today, more than 90 percent of our restaurants are open, with an increasing number participating in our new delivery partnerships with DoorDash, Postmates, Uber Eats, and ChowNow. I was thrilled when some owners of seasonal A&Ws decided to open early, even in the middle of the crisis, to serve their communities. We’re seeing sales stabilize, with some locations reporting growth; we’re optimistic sales will improve as more consumers receive stimulus checks and continue adapting to their conditions.

Photo of A&W CEO Kevin Bazner

Kevin Bazner, CEO

To protect our franchisees’ investments, A&W deferred royalty payments and suspended advertising contributions for March and April. Other franchisors have taken similar actions, but we went one step further, completely refunding all advertising account balances.

In keeping with our guiding principle to engage our franchise partners, these decisions were made in conjunction with our franchise association executive board, whose meetings increased from once a week to three.

Together, we developed a plan that includes system-wide webinars, also held three times a week, on topics ranging from SBA loans to delivery. I serve as host, with members of our support center team presenting on current events, timely topics, and evolving conditions.

Our R&D and marketing teams quickly developed new family packs and supporting materials, while our supply chain co-op, RSCS, kept provisions coming and sourced hard-to-get sanitizers, masks, and other protective equipment.

Karen Cary, a long-time, multi-unit franchise partner in California emailed me the other day with a touching message. “I’m writing to tell you how impressed I am with the great job that you and your staff at A&W Corporate are doing to assist the franchisees during this crisis.  You all show so much compassion and dedication, and I know that you know exactly what each franchisee is feeling and how frightened many are. I’ve never seen this level of help before. It is a pleasure and comfort to have leaders who are A&W people at heart and who work with – and for – the franchisee community.”

To Karen and all of our franchise partners, thanks for all you do! You are the reason that A&W is still going strong after nearly 101 years and why we will emerge together even stronger when the crisis passes.

Long-time leadership

A&W Restaurant franchises benefit from our consistent leadership. Most of our top positions haven’t changed since 2011 when our new ownership took over.

Another day, another email in your inbox announcing a new CEO at this restaurant or that franchise. That’s often followed quickly by a turnover of other high-ranking executives. The end result is often internal turmoil and franchisee dissatisfaction, especially since these turnovers tend to happen at the end of a disappointing quarter or year.

That’s not the case at A&W Restaurants. In 2011, a group of franchisees bought out the brand, and we still have the same leaders today: Chairman Dale Mulder, CEO Kevin Bazner, President & COO Paul Martino, VP of Restaurant Support Services Bill Fry and VP of Marketing Sarah Mueller.

Their success as a collaborative leadership team is evident in our sales increases. Since the 2011 change in ownership, our franchise has averaged a nearly 33% increase in sales. Our commitment to including franchisees in all of our decision-making is also evident.

“To operate a company such as A&W Restaurants you certainly have to leave your ego at the front door,” says Bazner. “If you’re going to be collaborative, which we have to be, you’ve got to be open to other people’s ideas.”

Two people's hands toasting with A&W Root Beer Mugs

A different kind of restaurant franchise

Like most franchises, A&W has a board of franchisee representatives whose job it is to bridge the divide between leadership and A&W restaurant owners. But in our case, NAWFA — the National A&W Franchisees Association — is more than just an advisory board. A&W and NAWFA collaborate on every important decision made. There is true representation here, and that’s not always the case with franchises.

More often than not, franchisee advisory councils are just that — advisory. But at A&W, we want everyone’s values aligned. Part of the reason we have such a strong and stable leadership team is because we make sure we understand the point of view of the franchisee — and we do that by walking a mile in their aprons, so to speak.

“I’m not a marketing guy or finance guy, I’m an operator who became CEO,” Bazner says. “I’ve washed dishes, been a line cook, been a bartender. That doesn’t make me smarter, it just puts me more in touch with what our operators deal with day to day.”

Once a quarter, everyone on our corporate team works a shift in an A&W Restaurant. It reminds them what it’s like to be in the trenches and helps them reconnect with the operational background so many of them come from. That’s true leadership, and it’s why we aren’t constantly having to change out our top executives.

Join our unique team

Learn more about becoming a part of the A&W franchise family. Fill out the form on this page to start a conversation, or explore our research pages to learn more about the franchise opportunity. We look forward to hearing from you!

Small town franchise: A&W CEO shares growth strategy with QSR

Article delves into why A&W Restaurants are especially compelling in small towns, and the quality and tradition that sets the brand apart.

CEO Kevin Bazner is sitting in a booth holding a burger, while the table top in front of him holds a Root Beer Float in an A&W-branded mug, a hot dog, chicken tenders, fries, onion rings and another burger.

CEO Kevin Bazner was featured recently in an article in QSR, explaining how A&W Restaurants is surging forward after a year of resetting, continuing along a path of intentional growth that is designed to make sure franchisees reap the benefits. One part of that strategy is celebrating our sweet spot as a small town franchise, a tactic that works because of big-brand advantages like our supply chain vendor, the largest purchasing cooperative in the quick-service restaurant industry, that provides A&W franchisees lower costs and broader reach because it also serves three of the biggest franchise chains in the nation: Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell.

“We can take our time,” Bazner tells QSR. “And frankly we have to. That’s how our system works since every initiative touches a restaurant.”

QSR’s article noted, “Beyond the costs, however, A&W discovered that it simply works better in smaller DMAs. ‘Those are our roots,’ Bazner says. ‘We can get in those locations and do (significant sales),’ he adds. ‘That’s a very nice economic model.’”

A return to our quality roots

QSR noted the positive changes that have taken place since 2011, when a partnership of domestic and international franchisees purchased the brand and hired Bazner as CEO in an effort to return to the practices that turned A&W into the iconic brand beloved by so many for 100 years. Here’s an excerpt from the QSR piece:franchisees purchased the brand and hired Bazner as CEO in an effort to return to the practices that turned A&W into the iconic brand beloved by so many for 100 years. Here’s an excerpt from the QSR piece:

For A&W, it comes down to the cues, and that’s something that was getting blurry before new ownership jumped in. Something as simple as making the root beer in-house. A&W returned the core practice to stores systemwide and is in the process of rolling out a draft arm, “just like it used to be,” Bazner says.

In addition to reigniting past feelings, these changes also project quality, Bazner says. It’s where A&W plays in quick service, since it’s not designed to battle aggressively on price. “That has been our value proposition from day one, and we can’t compete in the dollar menu arena,” Bazner says. “We don’t have the share or voice to drive traffic there. We do that locally, but broadly it’s the quality initiative. We stand on our product.” Returning to the franchisee-focused leadership model, there are restaurants in A&W’s system run by third-generation operators…

“They have pride in being able to present and communicate to their customer they’re making [the root beer] fresh in store,” Bazner says.

The small-town franchise you’ve been looking for

Learn more about owning an A&W franchise. Fill out the form on this page to start a conversation, or explore our research pages to learn more about the A&W restaurant franchise opportunity. We look forward to hearing from you!

Everybody has an A&W memory

From our customers to franchisees, everyone has their fond memories about our iconic 100-year-old fast food franchise. Here, some of the A&W leadership share their favorites.

A black-and-white photo of a hotdog with Coney sauce. Below the photo, white text on a black background reads, “Tuesdays were Coney Dog Days. Dogs were 10 cents. Root Beer was also 10 cents. She loved it, for it was an inexpensive dinner and us kids loved it. Still to this day I have to stop by and get a couple of Coney Dogs and Root Beer just to bring back great memories of my childhood.” -- Thomas Marusich

A&W is known for being the oldest fast food franchise in the country. From our humble beginnings as a roadside stand in 1919 Lodi, CA, to our resurgence today as a nationwide brand, A&W attracts nostalgic and new customers alike. They come for the creamy Root Beer made fresh in our restaurants and the juicy, 100% U.S. Beef burgers and real Wisconsin White Cheddar Cheese Curds. They come for the unique brand of hip nostalgia you can find only at A&W. And everyone, it seems, has a favorite A&W memory.

For our 100th anniversary this year, we talked to some of the executives and members of the National A&W Franchisee Association (NAWFA):

My favorite A&W memories are of going to the A&W Drive-In in San Rafael, CA, where they had carhops, and eating a cheeseburger and fries in the back seat of our family car with my mom, dad and little sister. In the mid-1960s I remember my mom telling us that she was going to get the “Teen Burger” instead of the “Mama Burger” — I guess she was feeling rebellious!
–Pete Knight, Lodi, CA, franchisee

My first A&W memory is of being interviewed by David Zollman and Kevin Bazner in 1985! I have two favorite A&W memories:

1. Becoming a franchisee in 1998
2. Having Sarah Blasi Mueller, our Vice President of Marketing (then Marketing Manager), introduce me as, “My friend, Kevin Klein” at the first convention after A&W was acquired in 2012 when she hardly knew me. It meant a lot! That may sound silly but it’s true. When we say A&W is a family, we mean it, and it shows in how we work together.
–Kevin Klein, Birch Run, MI, NAWFA Chairman

I remember sitting at a counter on a stool that spun around. There were only 4 or 5 stools, and that was the only place to sit inside. I remember a frosty mug filled with orange drink served to me by a man behind the counter wearing a white paper hat…my dad.

My favorite A&W memory was making my very first tip as a carhop. It was a quarter, which was a really good tip back in 1968. I remember thinking “WOW, easy money!”
–Linda Mulder, Grand Ledge, MI, NAWFA Vice Chair

Our first memory: Mike and I were dating, and we went to the A&W here in Reno during Hot August Nights. There were so many old cars with lots of old music, and people were dressed in poodle skirts and pompadours. It was so much fun!

Our best memory: In 2006, Mike and I purchased our first A&W Franchise in Reno, NV, becoming part of the A&W family!
–Mike & Raeleen Baker, Reno, NV, franchisees

My first memory of A&W was when I reached out the driver’s side window from the back seat, squeezing the entire upper half of my 6-year-old body between the door frame and my dad, and then leaning out and grabbing a cold, ice-dripping glass mug filled with A&W Root Beer from the attached tray. It was so heavy! So cold! I’ll never forget the unique smell and taste of that Root Beer.

My favorite memory of A&W is actually a living memory. It started a long time ago and gets refreshed every time I speak with another operator, another FGL, or anyone from the support and leadership team of our brand. It’s the power of relationships that defines us. That’s the strength of A&W.
–Tom Thompson, Dubuque, IA, franchisee

Growing up in Southern California in a large family, any restaurant visit was a big treat. My family of 10 would pile into our station wagon and spend a day at the park, with the big reward being a stop at the local A&W for a frosty mug of Root Beer at the A&W. Being the oldest, I could always opt out of the family time, but that mug of Root Beer made it worth the trip.
–Paul Martino, A&W President & COO

My first A&W memory is when I was a kid I could take my bike to the local A&W in Holland, MI, and lean up against the outdoor counter and order a large Root Beer and a hot dog with mustard and pickle for a total of 20 cents. It was a great treat.
–Dale Mulder, A&W Chairman

My first A&W memories are of walking to our local A&W in Fond du Lac and getting a free Baby Mug for kids under 5. We later purchased that A&W.

One of my favorite memories is putting on the Rooty the Root Beer Bear costume for the first time. I walked out to about two stalls, and a car was backing out and ran over the back of my foot and I couldn’t move.
–Jim Brajdic, Fond Du Lac, WI, NAWFA Treasurer

My first memory: Stopping at an A&W in Lincoln Park, MI, on the way back from my grandparents’ house when I was about 5 years old. We were allowed to get a Root Beer Float if we all behaved ourselves during the drive and the visit. Dad wanted to stop anyway for the Coney Dogs.

My favorite A&W memory is my daughter’s 4th birthday party at the PJ Drive-in in Malaysia shortly after we moved there. The team at A&W Malaysia made it a wonderful event for a young girl who was living in a foreign country with no extended family and who had not yet made any friends. It was likely her first exposure to Rooty the Root Beer Bear. It was the beginning of a special relationship that has lasted a lifetime and continues to this day.
–Kevin Bazner, A&W CEO

Learn more

Learn more about becoming a part of the A&W franchise family. Fill out the form on this page to start a conversation, or explore our research pages to learn more about the franchise opportunity. We look forward to hearing from you!